In Focus: Diane Arbus at Martin-Gropius-Bau

A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C 1966 – Diane Arbus

A photograph is a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.

This is one of the opening sentiments of the Diane Arbus exhibition currently on at Martin Gropius Bau, and it is for this reason that the exhibition’s 200 photographs are accompanied merely by the artist’s title and nothing more. The viewer is intended to be left alone to interpret the images as they will, unhampered by outside influences. It was therefore extremely irritating when I visited the exhibition one Wednesday afternoon to find a guided tour was taking place, laboriously addressing the pieces one by one and taking up all the gallery space.

Exasperated and unwilling to contend with the mob, I settled down on a chair and turned to my latest book, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The irony was not lost on me, Arbus’ fascination with the weird and wonderful is infamous.

Taken mainly in New York, Arbus’ photographs assemble an eclectic group of characters and although the appearance of many could be classed as ‘outlandish’ – subjects including ‘female impersonators’, dwarves and circus performers – there are plenty of examples of the outlandish within the everyday; for example the strange parallels between the image above of a young man and the old women below.

Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C 1966 – Diane Arbus

Also explored in Arbus’ photographs are issues of identity, gender, race and societal hierarchies. Although the individuals featured in her work are sometimes very aesthetically unusual she explained, ‘It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be…’ Photographs of famous carnival acts such as ‘The Human Pin-cushion Ronald C. Harrison’ and ‘The backwards man’ in their own personal spaces merely underline the human element behind these people’s acts and their similarities with the rest of the society they are marginalised from.

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C 1967 – Diane Arbus

Arbus’ work is hauntingly captivating, simultaneously capturing the ugly and the beautiful in everyday life. Within the collection on display are the artist’s most iconic works including ‘Identical Twins’, and also one of my personal favourites ‘Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C’, depicting the comical yet slightly disturbing manic child clutching a toy hand grenade.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962 – Diane Arbus

The final two rooms of the show are dedicated to the documentation of Arbus’ life and include a collection of her cameras, notebooks, negatives, prints and correspondence with art institutions such as a project proposal for the Guggenheim Foundation Grant detailing her wish to document ceremonies, stating; ‘I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.’ That they were, and immortalised in black and white they will continue to live on.

Exhibition is only up until the 24th of September 2012 at Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin

Untitled (6) 1970-71 – Diane Arbus

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